Every team has a story of a once in a generation player that by all accounts is a "can’t miss" prospect that tragically does.
They’re brought up with all the potential, all the promise in the world. They’re given every opportunity to succeed, but they don’t pan out. They get hurt, they hit an endless slump, they break down.
He gets bitter and angry. He toils in a self-sentenced exile. Never able to reach his peak, the ballplayer spends the rest of his life dwelling on what could have been, but never was.
This is not that story.
Esteban de la Cruz was not a rookie phenom. He never won a golden glove or a silver slugger award. He was not highly touted, he didn’t even create a semi-mild buzz of excitement.
Esteban "Stumpy" de la Cruz was god awful.
As a weak hitting first baseman in the Pirates’ and Brewers’ minor league system, de la Cruz accumulated a .091 career batting average with six RBIs and two homeruns over the span of six seasons. In 2002 he set a minor league record when he hit an unprecedented 643 groundouts in a single season, accounting for over half of the groundouts on the team.
But where he truly outshined the competition in terms of pure terribleness was in the field.
"I remember the first time I ever saw Esteban play was when he was in college at UC-Davis," said former Brewers scout Fred Mackenzie. "We were in town scouting a pitcher named Johnny Winters and it just so happened Esteban was at first that day. In the third inning he let three consecutive grounders go between his legs and had six throwing errors as a first baseman. I called my mom that night and wept on the phone for an hour and a half. It was horrid."
De la Cruz led all minor leaguers in errors between 2001 and 2006, accruing a total of 613 errors over that time.
In one game against the Red Sox Triple-A affiliate Pawtucket, de la Cruz accomplished the rare error cycle. He was charged with a throwing, catching and fielding error. In that order. Twice. In four innings.
"Oh yeah, I remember him," said former Brewer first baseman Prince Fielder. "He sucked."
De la Cruz earned the nickname Stumpy from his teammates, partially due to his 5’4" stature, but mainly because his left leg was 70 percent wood.
During a horrible butter churning accident as a child, de la Cruz’s grandfather splinted his leg with some spare boards he had in the barn. The nearest doctor was four hundred yards away and the only mule the family had had been put down when it contracted chlamydia. De la Cruz had to wait three days for a specialist to arrive, but that night the boards became infused with his leg, forming a literal stump.
His stump hindered him throughout his career. One of the biggest reasons why de la Cruz never panned out was the fact that he could hardly walk, let alone field a hot shot down the line. Plus when it rained he had to sit in the dugout otherwise his leg would warp.
Maybe the only thing more legendary than his proverbial peg leg was his temper.
De la Cruz once merited an invitation to spring training with the Pirates. By all accounts it was nothing more than a joke to keep morale up. One day de la Cruz was inserted as a pinch hitter with runners at the corners and two outs in a one run exhibition game. Former teammate Rob Schmidt remembers the incident vividly.
"When I saw Stumpy saunter out of the dugout I just lowered my head and used words that would get me expelled from most churches and grocery stores. After he whiffed on three straight curveballs he broke his bat over his knee and chased the pitcher around the diamond for 20 minutes. It took five groundskeepers and the Pirates mascot to restrain him. Three men went to the hospital that day," Schmidt said.
De la Cruz once tried to poison former teammate Ryan Braun after Braun criticized his effort on the field during a press conference.
"Stumpy was easily the worst prospect I have ever seen. Maybe the worst prospect ever," said former Milwaukee manager Ned Yost.
The title of worst prospect ever has gone from stigma to full blown fact. He is a seven time winner of the Worst Baseball Player in the World award, his seventh time coming one full year after his official retirement.
Why was someone so damn terrible allowed to stay in organized baseball? Why wasn’t someone as disturbed as Stumpy de la Cruz ripped away from the diamond and thrust into the nearest mental institution?
Because he is the bastard son of Miami Marlins manager and former White Sox great, Ozzie Guillen, that’s why. The organization tolerated Stumpy hoping he would soon blossom into the kind of player his father was. Alas, he never did.
After his retirement following the 2006 season, he utilized his father’s contacts to get a job as the JV baseball coach at St. Dominguez South Central High School in Gnome, Alaska. In his six seasons at the helm for Los Lobos he has led his team to a 12-94 record, the highest winning percentage in school history.
"I don’t get to talk to him very often because of both our busy schedules," Guillen said. "But I’ll send him a text every couple of days just to say ‘Hey, you still suck,’ or ‘Hey, you’re still an embarrassment that’s why you don’t have my last name,’ just something like that to, you know, keep him in his place."
The saga of Esteban "Stumpy" de la Cruz is the stuff of legend. It’s not an underdog story, nor is it a story of redemption. It is a story of utter failure, and it should be treated as such. De la Cruz was an awful player and remains an awful human being.
But through his struggles De la Cruz has demonstrated one immensely important life lesson for society as a whole: If you suck, find something else to do.